keyboard_arrow_uptop

The Thursday Takeaway
The Dodgers had six walk-off victories during the entire 2014 season. On Thursday, they earned their sixth of 2015, less than halfway through the year, and this one was unlike any of its 11 recent predecessors.

An apparent pitching mismatch pitting Anthony Ranaudo against Zack Greinke wound up a virtual draw: The Dodger outlasted the Ranger by an out and was the more dominant hurler—racking up an 8-to-0 K:BB ratio that far eclipsed Ranaudo's 4-to-2 output—but neither permitted a run, and that's what counts in the end. Ross Detwiler finished off the seventh for Texas, and the series finale was scoreless heading into inning no. 8.

Tanner Scheppers and J.P. Howell traded goose eggs there, and Kenley Jansen did his job in the top of the ninth, putting the onus on Keone Kela to match him and provide bonus baseball for the fans at Chavez Ravine.

Kela's evening got off to an ominous start when he issued a leadoff walk to Yasmani Grandal, who was promptly removed for pinch-runner Enrique Hernandez. The substitute would soon play a critical role in deciding the game.

But first, the 22-year-old Kela continued to battle his control with Andre Ethier at the dish, and a second-straight walk put the winning run in scoring position. Kela regained his composure for a moment, inducing a 3-6-3 double-play ball off the bat of Alberto Callaspo that put the game on the cusp of extras but also advanced Hernandez to third.

Callaspo was the sixth Dodger to bat with runners in scoring position on Thursday, and the sixth to make an out. Barring an unforeseen blunder by the Rangers, Jimmy Rollins would have had to notch the game's first knock with a man on second or third to end it. The veteran shortstop fell behind in the count, 1–2, almost assuring the crowd of a 10th inning of play. And then…

…Kela came set, saw Hernandez bolt down the line, and flinched—a balk in the eyes of home-plate umpire Marvin Hudson, just the sort of blunder the Dodgers needed to score without a hit.

It was the first balk-off win for the Dodgers since May 31, 2010, when the guilty party was the Diamondbacks' Esmerling Vasquez, and the first game-losing balk committed by the Rangers since Jeff Zimmerman gifted the Orioles a victory on April 28, 2000.

Quick Hits From Thursday
Sean O'Sullivan took the hill for the Phillies on Thursday looking to play stopper on two accounts. His team was in the midst of a nine-game losing streak, and its rotation had gone more than three weeks without picking up a win. As Jake Kaplan tweeted:

Since May 24, Phillies starters are 0-14 with a 5.89 ERA. No other starting staff has less than 5 wins in that span.

The right-hander's bid to snap both skids began in the poorest fashion possible:

But there's no shame in serving up Manny Machado homers these days; after all, the Orioles' third baseman had slugged five of them in his previous 11 games and batted .409 along the way. To O'Sullivan's credit, he picked up the pieces quickly and blanked the Birds for the rest of his five innings of work.

O'Sullivan allowed a walk and a double before escaping the first frame, but he also struck out the side to strand both runners. He wound up with seven Ks on the afternoon, and he limited the O's to just two more hits and one more walk. The Phillies could not have snapped their nine-game slide sans the 27-year-old's fine work on the mound.

Except there was also the matter of putting runs on the board, and the home nine failed to do that while its starter was in the game. Manager Ryne Sandberg pulled O'Sullivan for a pinch-hitter with the bases empty and two out in the last of the fifth, and when Odubel Herrera flied out, the Phillies' hopes of getting their starter a win for the first time since May 24th were dashed.

Still, a win is a win, even if it goes on the back of a reliever's baseball card, and Jake Diekman, who returned from the minors to a 6.75 ERA, wouldn't mind one to cheer him up. The left-hander pitched a scoreless top of the sixth, holding the 1–0 line and setting the stage for Ryan Howard to make him the pitcher of record with this two-run blast:

Bud Norris left a two-strike fastball well below his catcher's target, and Howard pummeled it into the right-center-field seats. Luis Garcia, Ken Giles, and Jonathan Papelbon did the rest in the 2–1 decision, and the Phillies' losing streak was no more.

***

While we're on the subject of late-inning homers that pave the way for 2–1 wins, the Twins needed a pair of them to knock off the Cardinals yesterday. That's because Jaime Garcia and Seth Maness silenced Minnesota's bats for six innings, and by the time they came to bat in the bottom of the seventh, Jason Heyward had gone yard off Mike Pelfrey.

Fortunately for the Twins' dormant offense, that solo homer was all that Pelfrey would allow the Redbirds in eight frames. He permitted just three other hits and one base on balls while striking out three. And in the eighth, Joe Mauer got Pelfrey off the hook:

With that, the game was tied and in the hands of the bullpens. Blaine Boyer navigated a Matt Carpenter double, the second of the game for the Cards' infielder, to post a scoreless top of the ninth. And that enabled Kennys Vargas to send the Target Field fans home happy:

Vargas' walk-off gave the Twins their second win in as many days, as the clubs split their home-and-home series, with the hosts winning each of the four contests. All four games were decided by two or fewer runs, and neither team exceeded three runs in any of the four games.

***

As reasons for getting benched go, this one might take the cake for 2015:

Sandoval benched, admits that was him liking photos of woman on Instagram during game Said he was using bathroom at the time
Gordon Edes (@GordonEdes)

Sandoval sat out Thursday's battle with the Braves at Turner Field and watched Travis Shaw—fresh up from Triple-A Pawtucket—go 0-for-4 at the dish. The Red Sox got by just fine without their regular third baseman, though, thanks to the sparkplugging efforts of utility-man Brock Holt.

Batting atop the order, Holt tripled to lead off the fourth inning and scored the game's first run on an RBI ground out by David Ortiz. He then catalyzed a sixth-inning rally with a leadoff single, the first of three straight one-base knocks for the Red Sox, who scored thrice in the frame despite a twin killing.

Boston's 4–0 lead didn't stay comfortable long, as a two-out throwing error by Clay Buchholz put the Braves halfway to a draw. But Holt responded by drawing a two-out walk from former Red Sox David Aardsma, and a Mookie Betts double made it 5–2 Boston, the eventual final score.

In a small dose of good news for the Braves, their right fielder, Nick Markakis, made history amid the defeat. Thursday's contest was the 393rd straight error-less outing for Markakis, topping the outfielder record previously held by Darren Lewis. Markakis hasn't been charged with an “E" since August 10, 2012.

***

The first AL team to reach 40 wins? That would be the Houston Astros, who on Thursday won their fifth consecutive game, downing the Rockies, 8–4, at Coors Field.

Homers are usually the name of the game in Denver, and the Astros had two of them to the Rockies' one. Two rookies, Preston Tucker and Domingo Santana, produced the yard work, the latter with his first big-league big fly. A third first-year made history on the basepaths.

Carlos Correa went 1-for-4 and hit into a double play at the dish yesterday, but he made his presence felt at Coors nonetheless. The shortstop stole third base in the third inning and scored on a single by Chris Carter. He drew a one-out walk and then stole second in the fifth inning, before coming around on a Tucker double. Then, after leading off the seventh inning with a double, Correa swiped third.

Correa was stranded aboard that time, but his third theft of the afternoon put him in rarefied air. Still nearly 100 days shy of the legal drinking age, Correa is now the second-youngest player in the last century to record three steals in one game. Only Rickey Henderson has him beat.

The rookies' power and speed enabled the toolsy-but-whiff-prone Astros to overcome their 17 strikeouts. As Yahoo Sports' Jeff Passan pointed out, they became just the third team in major-league history to score eight or more times in a nine-inning game while booking 17-plus Ks.

***

While the Astros-Rockies tilt featured a showcase of youth, the storyline heading into the Mets-Jays finale was the meeting of quadragenarian starters. With 82 combined years on this earth between them, R.A. Dickey and Bartolo Colon squared off in what's almost certain to be the oldest pitching matchup of the season.

Taking on a scuffling Mets offense, Dickey struggled to control his knuckler in the early going, then settled in to pitch 7 1/3 innings of one-run ball. He walked five but got around that by fanning seven and limiting Terry Collins' club to just three hits.

Colon had no such luck.

The 42-year-old issued only one walk in 4 1/3 innings, but the Jays strung together six hits in a seven-batter stretch in the last of the fourth, and by the time Colon struck out Justin Smoak to end it, the score was 6–0 Toronto.

Then, just as Colon looked to regain his dignity in the fifth, Chris Colabello greeted him with an oppo taco on the second pitch of the frame. Colon was gone one out later, and the 4 1/3-inning effort equaled his shortest of the year.

The Jays were finished scoring for the night, but the Mets were ill-equipped to recover from the 7–0 hole. Lucas Duda's eighth-inning solo shot, which accounted for New York's only tally, barely made a dent.

The Defensive Play(s) of the Day
It's no wonder the Pirates rotation is putting up gaudy numbers these days, with gems like this one being turned in behind them:

Andrew McCutchen's diving grab denied Alexei Ramirez a two-out knock and helped Gerrit Cole on his way to seven innings of two-run work. The Bucs went on to win 3–2, extending their active winning streak to a league-high eight.

What to Watch This Weekend

Friday
First off, remember to tune in tonight to watch Alex Rodriguez attempt to gain entry into the 3,000-hit club. A-Rod enters the three-game series with the Tigers with 2,999 knocks to his name, so there's a strong chance he'll reach the milestone before the weekend is out. Justin Verlander gets the ball for Detroit in the opener in the Bronx, and the right-hander will do his best to delay the (seemingly) inevitable by at least one day (7:05 p.m. ET).

Saturday
After three rehab starts, the last of them a two-inning outing for High-A Frederick on Tuesday, Kevin Gausman has been deemed ready to rejoin the Orioles. He'll do so as a starter, getting the ball from manager Buck Showalter in the middle match of the O's weekend series with the Blue Jays across the border.

Saturday's assignment will mark Gausman's first major-league start of the 2015 season, on the heels of a 2014 campaign in which he worked exclusively in the rotation. The right-hander appears to have fully recovered from the shoulder tendinitis that sidelined him in early May, but it's not yet clear what the Orioles have in store for the 24-year-old. He figures to be on a pitch count, at least for an outing or two, considering that he hasn't exceeded 38 pitches in any big-league appearance this year and threw just 29 for Frederick before being cleared for activation.

The Blue Jays will counter with Mark Buehrle, who's been excellent to this point in June, kicking off the month with a six-hit shutout of the Nationals and cruising to a 1.23 ERA through 22 innings over three starts. Buehrle has worked exactly six frames in each of his three dates with the Orioles this year, permitting either two or three runs before handing it over to the bullpen. The Blue Jays plated double-digit runs in all three of those games, going 3–0 behind their seasoned southpaw (1:07 p.m. ET).

Sunday

Remember when Nelson Cruz was breaking out the boomstick, night in and night out, bashing homers left and right, and hovering among the contenders for the American League batting title? The first-year Mariner was outstanding for the first two months of the season, but as soon as the calendar turned to June, the boomstick crawled into a cave and has since refused to come out.

Cruz entered play Thursday with an 11-for-52 batting line since the start of June, with five walks, 16 strikeouts, and not a single extra-base hit. The downtrend in his exit velocity helps to explain the dearth of doubles and homers,

.@DanHirsch Nelson Cruz average exit velocity by month:
April 92.58
May 89.35
June 87.5
Daren Willman (@darenw)

as does a comparison between his pre-June and June spray charts. Through May 31st, Cruz was driving the ball to his pull side and shooting the right-field line for two-baggers:

Now look at what's happened since June 1st:

All those long flies to left are gone, and so, too, are the rockets down the right-field line. Cruz isn't popping the ball up, and he's still occasionally lining the ball up the middle, but the latter spray chart also reflects an increase in grounders (from 33 percent in April to 49 percent in May to 58 percent this month) and a dip in fly balls (from 55 percent in April all the way down to 19 percent in June), neither of which is conducive to power production.

There are less than two weeks left in June for Cruz to straighten out his approach before he celebrates his 35th birthday on July 1st, and the first three opportunities come in this weekend's series with the Astros. He'll dig in against rookie right-hander Vincent Velasquez in the series finale at Safeco Field (4:10 p.m. ET).